Laura over at Enough Light posted her 2012 top posts and highlighted this gem of a post, Does Your Church Make People Jump Through Hoops? Stop it!. She writes on a very important topic – the life and health of the church. I would encourage you to read it. The thrust of the argument is how newcomers are expected to jump through hoops to get on board. Now, no church or its leadership will confess to this directly. But it does come out in subtle ways or maybe not so subtle. The goal is to bring people on board. So the visitor is expected to join the body. Once officially joined, there is the expectation of participation. The participation of course, should contribute to the vision and mission of what that local assemblies’ leadership has prescribed for the church to do. Therefore, when individuals come into the fold, the way they fit in is to do as prescribed. In this scenario the visitor/newcomer is seen as a commodity to make the church strong rather than a vital member of the body based on their faith.
I believe this to be a common scenario in today’s contemporary evangelical church, particularly independent, non-denominational churches. But there is something under the hood that motivates this type of corporate structure where people only feel valuable according to what they do, whether it be to join this or that ministry or small group or other defined obligations. Here’s what I think is going on. The contemporary church by and large has operated under the premise of what they do as opposed to who they are. Put differently, the contemporary church has defined itself by what it does instead of who it is, the body of Christ united together to grow itself up together in love (Ephesians 4:16). Of course there are exceptions. But the more emphasis that is placed on the definition of the church being what it does, the more will be expected of individual members to jump on board in order to fulfill the church’s definition.
I think pragmatism has very much fueled this approach has taken over the current evangelical landscape. Pragmatism takes on a variety of forms and functions but at the center is concerned with practical functioning of the church. So if the church defines itself by what it does, then pragmatism will seek out ways to make that practically happen so that the church looks likes it is supposed to look. The implications for newcomers is obvious – they must do what is necessary to fit in.
Conversely, when a local assembly is defined by who it is, this takes on a whole other dimension. This church will be intentional about Christ-centered preaching that educates its members on who they are in Christ rather than giving the congregation (or in some cases brow beating) a steady diet of “do more”. The church defined by who it is will not shy away from solid Christian education or in-depth bible study because it’s leaders know that is necessary for healthy church growth. This church will not so much be concerned with the quantity of people in the pews but the quality of their faith, recognizing that maturity of members contributes to church growth. This church makes a concerted effort to reach out to newcomers and makes them feel welcome based on their value as members of the body of Christ because this is who they are – a body comprised of members who are united in Christ.
Now you might be raising an obvious objection by now. What about the call to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Yes, but discipleship begins internally. If the focus is to go out and “do” without members rooted in who they are, then this is only a formula that will fuel the individual, get on board commodity pragmatism. So more people come in with the expectation of doing something and the cycle repeats itself.
And this gets to my wish for the contemporary evangelical church, that it will stop defining itself by what it does but according to who it is. I pray that leaders will stop relying on pragmatism and appearances that push people to do something in order to feel like a valuable part of the body. I wish that churches would get serious about outreach of newcomers so that people are genuinely welcomed in the fold. This might take some serious re-evaluation by church leadership but I believe it is vital for the true health of the church, not the appearance of healthiness defined by what people do. The church who gathers according to who it is will ultimately do as it should according to the mission of the church outlined in scripture.